(DAILY BEAST) HONG KONG, China — The meeting took place in a private room in a Shenzhen restaurant. Within a navy blue duffel bag were clattering bone-hued beads, amulets, and bracelets.
He placed a disk in my hand, with a hole drilled near its rim and a red tassel dangling from it to assume the appearance of a lucky charm. It nearly covered the entirety of my palm and had a Chinese poem carved on one side, with a bull on the other. The cross-hatched Schreger pattern on its surface was unmistakably that of ivory. “That piece is ¥2,000 [$320],” he said. “Everything I sell is processed in my workshop. I hire skilled carvers, and we can handle bigger pieces too.” He removed the bubble wrap around a lump drawn from his bag and revealed a rotund Laughing Buddha, about 8 inches tall with a hard white belly rolling forth. “This one is ¥24,500 [nearly $4,000].” He was disappointed that I was not ready to bargain. For a moment, I measured the risk of carrying that sack in public. He traveled alone. What if he was mugged as he left our meeting?
“Most of it is from Ethiopia,” he said. On the screen of his smartphone, he swiped through pictures of elephants lying on the ground, lifeless, a mixture of red earth and redder blood caked onto their bodies, tusks freshly severed by chain saws and hoisted like trophies by grinning, sweaty, dusty poachers. The shots serve as proof of sourcing for his clients. Blood ivory is a big business in China.